Late bloomers vs. Young geniuses (Critiquing Gladwell, Part 2)

Gladwell’s article, titled Late bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?, makes one major mistake in not addressing the questions researchers have about the notion of genius. Entire books have been written with the premise that there really is no such thing as a genius in the sense most people use it, and that the distinctions of ‘prodigy’ and ‘genius’ are so abused and misunderstood as to be useless.

This essay uses the idea of ‘the young genius’ as a point of leverage for late bloomers, suggesting that you are either one or the other (this is the core thesis of economics professor David Galenson’s book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, whom Gladwell quotes in the article). Dualism of this kind is dangerous and nearly always misleading. It brings to mind that old joke: there are two kinds of people in the world, those that think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those that don’t.

The more I’ve studied creative thinking the more convinced I am these sweeping categorizations are 1) supported by selective research 2) not the best tools for those who want to follow creative paths themselves.

Gladwell wrote:

Picasso was the incandescent prodigy. His career as a serious artist began with a masterpiece, Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas produced at age twenty. In short order, he painted many of the greatest works of his career, including Les Demoiselles at the age of twenty-six. Picasso fit our usual ideas about genius perfectly.

But what are those ideas? He doesn’t say. I think most people imagine young Pablo, if he were a genius, learning to paint largely on his own. I think it’d be a surprise to learn his father was a painter, and taught Picasso to draw and paint from a very young age, sent him to an excellent art school as a youth, and encouraged his trips to Paris, where he quickly made an amazing assortment of connections in the art scene before he was 25. Similar family and community support can be found in the story of Mozart (his father was also a musician who trained him early). Who your parents were is hugely significant in the history of prodigies and geniuses.

Another fact that doesn’t usually fit our idea of genius: at the time Picasso painted Evocation, he was basically starving in Paris, in a situation similar to Van Gogh’s a few decades earlier, faced with the choice on many mornings of buying food or buying paint. Picasso had been working seriously, by most definitions, for years before Evocation was finished. We don’t think of people with prodigious, gifted talents starving and struggling, but there he was. Another counterpoint is that Picasso had a ridiculously vibrant painting career that spanned decades – one of his greatest works, Guernica, was made at the age of 56. The passage from Gladwell hints that his 20s were his best work, but that’s not true. It was an intense time of productivity, but not the only productive time in his life.

Gladwell continues:

Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues, rarely engage in that kind of open-ended exploration. They tend to be “conceptual,” Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word ‘research,’ ” Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas. “In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.” He continued, “The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting. . . . I have never made trials or experiments.”

This is an outright contradiction of Picasso’s performance in the documentary The Mystery of Picasso, where he spends 70 minutes revealing his creative process as a series of experiments, risks and gambles. Over the course of an amazing hour we see him take risks, make mistakes, and continually reinvent and change individual paintings. It’s a rare and amazing thing for any artist to expose themselves in this way, much less the difficult and reclusive Picasso, but he seems, on camera to take deep pride in his creative experimentation.

Nothing can stop Picasso from having contradicted himself, but if he did, both ends of the contradiction have value in this discussion.

More to my point, there is a huge inventory of creators who have been called geniuses who mention experimentation as a critical to their creative process. They include Frank Lloyd Wright, Hemingway, David Byrne, Miles Davis, Paul Simon, and on it goes.

Finally, Gladwell offers:

This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others. In biographies of Cézanne, Louis-Auguste invariably comes across as a kind of grumpy philistine, who didn’t appreciate his son’s genius. But Louis-Auguste didn’t have to support Cézanne all those years. He would have been within his rights to make his son get a real job, just as Sharie might well have said no to her husband’s repeated trips to the chaos of Haiti.

But what is not mentioned is the amazing social network that enabled and supported young Picasso to do what he did. Dependence on the effort of others is not a factor exclusive to late bloomers. On his first trip to Paris, he quickly met Max Jacob, who taught him French and French culture – they’d share a room for years. He had many friends in the art scene in those early years, including Andre Breton (founder of surrealism), Gertrude Stein, and Henry Matisse. Not a bad crowd to get advice from for an artist in his 20s. He also befriended artist George Braque, and through collaboration they would develop a little thing called cubism together.

(Hat tip, Ario)


6 Responses to “Late bloomers vs. Young geniuses (Critiquing Gladwell, Part 2)”

  1. Gordon

    Interesting post, Scott. Have you checked out the book, “Talent Is Overrated?”

  2. sandy sims

    Hi Scott, Nice article. I think that the major condition geniuses benefit by is that they live is a perpetual state of questioning. They have the “on” switch on all of the time.


  3. Mark

    I feel obliged to mention that Gladwell (I believe in his book ‘Outliers’) talks about Mozart’s early leg-up in terms of early training, and goes further to explain that success is realative to one’s station in life, timing and finally, ability and that it’s a blend of the three that create genius – young or old. I feel that his point in writing this was to point out the dichotomy that people have created and dispel some of its Romantic notions.

  4. Mark

    Oh man… pardon the poor syntax, it’s five in the morning and I stumbled across your critique while researching my paper. yikes



  1. Standing on the shoulders of giants…

    A recent exchange of views on the actKM mailing list inspired me to think about writing about my own Web2.0 experience, and what it means for me. Then the now-famous Wired article was published (no link — it has had enough — but here is a g…

Leave a Reply

* Required